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06 December 2010

Workplace canteens - a survey of union reps

A Workplace Report survey of 254 workplaces found a significant fall in the proportion that had a workplace canteen compared with a decade ago. Even among those that do, fewer of the facilities are subsidised by the employer, although in other ways satisfaction with the food provided was high.

The works canteen appears to be a declining tradition in UK workplaces. Only just over half (56%) of the 254 union representatives responding to a new Workplace Report survey had a canteen1 in their workplace, compared with 66% in a similar survey in 2000 and 82% in 1995.

While the surveys do not cover the same establishments - many of those surveyed 10 and 15 years ago are likely to have closed down since, particularly during the recent recession- there can be little doubt that the employer-subsidised workplace canteen is a less common benefit now than for the previous generation of workers.

For example, in the latest survey a union rep from First Transpennine Express remarked that that "canteens were always rare on BR and are now non-existent". And a respondent from Cardiff Bus services told Workplace Report: "We have recently removed the canteen facilities and moved to vending machines...We are installing soft furnishing areas, media centre, quiet room."

Other reps reporting the loss of previously existing canteens included one from Brentwood Borough Council, where the canteen facility was closed and its staff made redundant last year, according to the rep. The canteen area was cleared when the top floor of the building was closed to save business rates and is now used for storage. There is now no seating area and "most staff have to eat lunch at their desk or leave the building for food."

And while tap manufacturer James Walker & Co still has some provision, according to the rep, it is not as beneficial as previously. "We used to have a large subsidised canteen that made way for a conference room. Now it is very small with food machines. We have only had caterers again for the last 12

Some are fighting back: the rep at Tower Hamlets College in London told Workplace Report: "We used to have a staff seating area in the canteen (which is shared with students) and we now have none. We are trying to win back a space for staff, ie a staffroom with microwave and other facilities for those who don't want to use the canteen".

The decline in proportions of workplaces with canteens since 2000 comes despite the fact that the latest survey included a higher proportion of large establishments and canteens are, not surprisingly, more common in larger workplaces. Almost nine in 10 of establishments with more than 500 workers now have one compared with just 5% of those with fewer than 50 employees.

1 It should be noted that in the case of some large employers the survey includes multiple responses from reps on different sites.

Size of workplace and likelihood of having a canteen

Number of employees no. with canteen % with canteen
0-49 2 5%
50-99 8 27%
100-499 57 58%
500-999 29 88%
1,000 - 4,999 36 88%
5,000 or more 7 88%

The overwhelming majority (92%) of canteen facilities that do exist cater for
all types of workers, although there are notable exceptions. At Yellow Buses in
Bournemouth there are three canteens, one each for engineers, administrative and
managerial staff and bus drivers and supervisors.

Little more than one in four (27%) of the reps with canteens said they provide a service for shift workers or others employed outside of standard hours.

The rep at First West Yorkshire bus company said the canteen "only provides hot food between the hours of 9am to 11am (Mon-Fri). At all other times staff have to use vending machines for food and drinks, though microwaves, fridges and a hot water boiler are provided free of charge." However, at Shell's Stanlow Manufacturing Complex, according to the rep, "most shift workers have one canteen in a centralised control building".

Canteen prices

The value of a workplace canteen to workers depends, of course, on whether
its prices are considered reasonable.

The table below shows the average "typical" price of three categories of food and drink as reported by union reps. It also shows the averages broken down between subsidised and unsubsidised canteens, whether or not the union has a role in the running of the canteen, and whether the canteen is directly run or run by a contractor.

Average Canteen Prices

All canteens Subsidised canteens Unsubsidised canteens Union role Union no role In house Contractor
Tea 54p 43p 65p 37p 60p 54p 55p
Snack meal ?1.88 ?1.75 ?2.04 ?1.63 ?1.97 ?1.80 ?1.92
Main meal ?3.15 ?2.94 ?3.42 ?2.69 ?3.30 ?2.97 ?3.22

In the 10 years since the last survey, the overall average price of a cup of
tea has doubled, from 27p to 54p. Typical price increases for snack and main
meals have been rather less sharp, increasing by 63% and 62% respectively.
Nevertheless the prices have rocketed beyond inflation: during the same period,
the Retail Prices Index rose by 31%. In other words, main meal prices rose by
twice the rate of inflation and tea by well over three times the rate.

This may be the result of a decline in employer subsidy for canteens.

Only just over half (52%) of the respondents with canteens said their's was subsidised, compared with 64% 10 years ago. One in five of those with canteens said an employer subsidy had been removed in the last five years.

The price of food and beverages is very much affected by whether or not there is a subsidy. The survey showed that the average price of a cup of tea in an unsubsidised canteen is 65p - 51% higher than in a subsidised one). For snack meals the prices are ?2.04 unsubsidised and ?1.75 subsidised - a gap of 17% - and for main meals it is ?3.42 unsubsidised and ?2.94 subsidised - a difference of 16%.

The level of subsidy can be crucial to the survival of a canteen. A rep from BP Hamble said: "We did have a canteen until recently but the lady operating it could not make it pay so it closed". One respondent reported that a burger van near the site undercut the canteen leading to its closure and another said their
canteen was under threat because of low usage due to high prices.

But subsidy is not the only factor in keeping prices in check. The survey also found that union involvement in the running of the canteen has a marked effect on prices. The average price of a cup of tea is 60p where there is no union involvement in the running of the canteen - 62% more than where there is union involvement (37p).

The gaps are somewhat smaller for meals, with a snack meal 21% more expensive - at ?1.97 where there is no union involvement compared with ?1.53 where there is - and a main meal 23% more expensive - at ?3.30 compared with ?2.69.

However, only 23% of survey respondents said unions have involvement in the running of their workplace canteens, down from 41% in the 2000 survey.

Another factor affecting prices is whether the canteen is run directly by the employer or by outside contract caterers. The gap is fairly small: for a cup of tea it is less than 2% (55p compared with 54p), for a snack meal it is 7% (?1.92 compared with ?1.80) and for a main meal it is 8% (?3.22 compared with

However, directly run canteens are an endangered species: the proportion of canteens run by contract caterers has risen from two thirds 10 years ago to three quarters now.

Customer satisfaction

Number %
Portion sizes
Substantial 16 11%
Average 117 84%
Small 7 5%
Food quality
Excellent 11 8%
Good 65 46%
Reasonable 52 37%
Poor 12 9%
Value for money
Excellent 12 9%
Good 54 39%
Reasonable 56 40%
Poor 18 13%

The survey also asked reps about the quality of the provision and value for
money. Across the board, fewer than half (47%) of reps with workplace canteens
described them as excellent or good value for money, the other 53% denoting them
reasonable or poor. But a huge majority of respondents believed that the food
portions were substantial or at least adequate (95%). A narrow majority (54%)
believed the food quality was either excellent or good.

There were some negative comments on food quality. One rep said: "The food in
our canteens is very poor. This is a college and the food provided for students
is too expensive and of poor nutritional quality, with too many chips and fatty
snacks and high energy drinks which are not suitable in a teaching

However, overall three quarters of reps with canteens agreed that the food provided was nutritious and balanced. The vast majority said (89%) said there was a daily vegetarian option and 86% said there were daily healthy eating options. Also 24% said meals were provided for people on special diets such as low fat/gluten free, and 33% said they catered for particular religious or cultural requirements, such as beef or pork-free meals.

Who runs the canteen?

With three quarters of workplace canteens run by outside contractors and
unions only involved in less than a quarter of cases, the choice of contractor
may well be crucial.

Of those responses which identified the contractor, Sodexo was the most common with 15 sites, followed by Compass with nine. In joint third place were Aramark and Baxter Storey, both with five sites, and then Eurest with four.

Only 30% of reps said the canteen workers themselves were unionised. The canteen staff union was recognised for collective bargaining in four in five of these cases.

Given that Sodexo figured more often in the survey than any other contractor it is unfortunate that the firm has a poor reputation in relation to unions fighting for recognition. Dave Prentis, general secretary of public sector union UNISON, denounced Sodexo bosses for taking a hard line against staff in the US, saying that the firm had sacked 16 workers who tried to organise a union.

However, it is not the only contractor to have rowed with unions. Further down the list is Aramark, a company which has been mired in disputes with staff in canteens the firm runs at the BBC World Service and Television Centre. One arose after the firm removed the stools beside cash registers, forcing their staff to stand up throughout their shifts. The Health and Safety Executive was
called in and ordered the company to reinstate the stools. HSE inspector Andrew
Verrall-Withers stated that chairs would not only have to be restored at the BBC
but ?the same principle applies to other workplaces.?

Length of meal breaks

The survey asked reps about the length of their main meal breaks. The most
common provision was a break of 30 to 45 minutes. Only 24% had a flexischeme
which determined meal breaks - a decline on the 36% reporting this in the 2000

The length of meal breaks can have a major effect on what is possible. One (extreme) example was given by a manufacturing company where the only break in an eight-hour shift is 10 minutes. Clearly such a short break would not enable anyone to get a meal even if a canteen were provided.

Length of break Number of workplaces %
Under 30 minutes 19 8%
30-45 minutes 98 40%
45 minutes-1 hour 70 28%
Over 1 hour 2 1%
Flexischeme 59 24%

Other eating facilities

All reps in the survey, whether they had a canteen or not, were asked about
other eating facilities in their workplace. Most employers (94%) provided at
least some beverages free and 16% provided at least some food free.

Four in five said there was an area other than a canteen where workers could eat their own food. The majority were provided with a cooker or microwave oven (87%), a fridge (87%), a kettle (75%) and a drinks vending machine (71%), while 57% had a food vending machine. A number of reps said water coolers were provided.

The survey asked if the eating area and facilities were kept clean and while 78% said yes, 19% said only sometimes and a handful (3%) said no.

At several local authorities the responses indicated that the staff had
bought the equipment needed. At Brentwood Borough Council, for instance, the
"staff have bought microwave ovens, kettles and toasters for use in the
offices," and at Fylde Borough Council, said the rep, "staff provide their own
fridges, kettles, microwaves".

Another council, Reigate and Banstead, has "a small staff room rather than a canteen with separate kitchen area".

Overall it seems that fewer employers are providing canteens than a decade ago and fewer are providing subsidy. More of those facilities that do exist are being run by outside contractors and without any union input, either from the
main unions in the workplace or from the canteen workers being unionised

Some sites have exemplary provision and at missile manufacturer MBDA in Stevenage, according to the rep, the subsidised canteen offers soup at 30p, main courses from ?1.90, desserts for 46p and a different menu every day. He describes the canteen food as of excellent quality and also excellent value for money, although the portions are "small".

But things might get worse in the current era of cuts and austerity. A number of public sector respondents referred to recent cuts having an impact. At Essex Police the subsidised canteen facilities contract with Sodexo was terminated last month as the employer cut the subsidy, according to reps, and a number of fire service respondents reported that fire station cooks were removed because of cuts in funding leaving staff to cook their own meals and make their own beverages.

About the survey

The survey was carried out among contacts in the Labour Research Department Payline database of collective agreements. A total of 254 responded, spread across the economy with 123 (49%) from the public sector, 116 (46%) from the private sector and 12 (5%) in the not-for-profit sector.

The respondents represented a wide range of sizes of workplace: 37 (15%) had less than 50 workers; 30 (12%) had 50 to 99 workers; 99 (40%) had 100 to 499 workers; 33 (13%) had 500 to 999 workers; 41 (17%) had 1,000 to 4,999 workers; and eight (3%) had 5,000 or more workers in the workplace.

The industrial breakdown of responses was: 53 (21%) in manufacturing; 13 (5%) in retail and distribution; 16 (6%) in media and entertainment; one in construction; nine (4%) in finance and business services; 10 (4%) in central government; 64 (26%) in local government; 29 (12%) in education; five (2%) in health; 17 (7%) in passenger transport; nine (4%) in energy and water; 15 (6%) in the fire service; and eight (3%) in the voluntary sector.

This article originally appeared in the November issue of Workplace Report, LRD's monthly magazine for union reps.


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